A 19th century French aristocrat, notorious for his scathing memoirs about life in Russia, travels through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and encounters historical figures from the last 200+ years.
Third part in Aleksandr Sokurov's quadrilogy of Power, following Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001), focuses on Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Japan's defeat in World War II when he is finally confronted by General Douglas MacArthur who offers him to accept a diplomatic defeat for survival.
An unseen man regains consciousness, not knowing who or where he is. No one seems to be able to see him, except the mysterious man dressed in black. He eventually learns through their discussions that this man is a 19th century French aristocrat, who he coins the "European". This turn of events is unusual as the unseen man has a knowledge of the present day. The two quickly learn that they are in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the European who has a comprehensive knowledge of Russian history to his time. As the two travel through the palace and its grounds, they interact with people from various eras of Russian history, either through events that have happened at the palace or through the viewing of artifacts housed in the museum. Ultimately, the unseen man's desired journey is to move forward, with or without his European companion.Written by
Sokurov breaks boundaries with his dreamlike vision of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It's the first feature-length narrative film shot in a single take (on digital video, using a specially designed disc instead of tape). "Russian Ark" is shot from the point-of-view of an unseen narrator, as he explores the museum and travels through Russian history. The audience sees through his eyes as he witnesses Peter the Great (Maksim Sergeyev) abusing one of his generals; Catherine the Great (Maria Kuznetsova) desperately searching for a bathroom; and, in the grand finale, the sumptuous Great Royal Ball of 1913. The narrator is eventually joined by a sarcastic and eccentric 19th century French Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), who travels with him throughout the huge grounds, encountering various historical figures and viewing the legendary artworks on display. While the narrator only interacts with the Marquis (he seems to be invisible to all the other inhabitants), the Marquis occasionally interacts with visitors and former residents of the museum.
The film was obviously shot in one day, but the cast and crew rehearsed for months to time their movements precisely with the flow of the camera while capturing the complex narrative, with elaborate costumes from different periods, and several trips out to the exterior of the museum. Tillman Buttner, the director of photography, was responsible for capturing it all in one single Steadicam shot. "Russian Ark" is an amazing accomplishment, and clearly made with passion, but while the film is sure to be hailed as a masterpiece by some, its narrative conceit isn't nearly as interesting as the technical feat of its creation. The result is a unique and intelligent film with sporadic moments of transcendent beauty that fails to create a strong emotional connection with its audience. It's essentially a 96-minute museum tour, with the added benefit of time travel and wax figures that briefly come to life.
But wax figures are all they are, essentially. Sokurov, as though following a hasty guide, spends so little time with the historical figures he portrays that it often feels as though he's moving on just as you begin to figure out who and what you're watching. The Russian experience of World War II, for example, is portrayed with a brief stop in a foreboding, ghostly room filled with coffins. The filmmaker is known for his lugubrious pacing, but Russian Ark has the odd distinction of seeming both slow paced and rushed. It moves slowly and mournfully, but still only glances across the surface of the eras it portrays. It's a demanding film, encompassing a wealth of Russian history and art history between its first and final frames. Those who stay with it will be rewarded in the end by a gorgeously mounted ball, in which the camera gracefully slides among elaborately costumed dancers as the orchestra plays. It's a deeply felt irony that this transcendent moment of joy takes place on the eve of the Russian revolution, and the world of these briefly glimpsed characters is about to come crashing to an end. It's a shame that the film has few moments where form and content align so powerfully
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